Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

Read for Equality, Please

Regular readers here will have seen my postings of READ FOR EQUALITY, a habit that has grown out of my concern for the racial inequity in publishing. In honor of these concerns I am happy to turn over the blog today to Linda Thornton, who shares her unique history. Linda tells her story clearly and succinctly. I welcome your response. KD

Secret Seeds

I grew up close to the border and my last name was Villa.  Even though my skin is fair and burns in 10 minutes, it was pretty easy to guess that I am Latina.  But now with my married name sounding white and my living in Colorado, well, I’m a bit more of a chameleon. Most people have no idea until I tell them.

And then I adopted a black boy.  He was this baby in a bowtie who was happily banging the courtroom table while the judge was asking me legal questions about forever and family.  I could barely hear the judge over the joyful squeals in my ear but I already knew all the answers.  “I do.”  “I will.”

The year was 2015 and I had no idea that I had just been drafted into a race relations war in the US.  This was before I had heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, before Trump, before the year everything came to a head.  Sure, I knew some people were racist in this country but I thought we could easily maneuver around them.  After all, hadn’t I easily maneuvered around racists as a Latina?

Yes, I had.

But what did I leave behind in my wake?  Who did not get their chance?  Will that person be my son because I didn’t face racism head on when I saw it?  To turn around in its face and firmly say, “No.”

We have a duty now.  No matter our color or gender or the number in our bank account.  No one is exempt from the calling this time.  It needs all of us.  And that doesn’t mean just not being a racist yourself but you being a warrior for justice.  Silence is compliance and my son is watching your silence.

Will you march? Will you call? Will you write? Will you say something if you see something?  I call these people the front line.  And I’ve discovered that not every person is built for it.

But there are other lines to stand on.  Will you read? Reading is active because it can change your hard wiring.  Read fiction about growing up in the South.  Read non-fiction regarding the statistics of mass incarceration.  Read a children’s book where the main character is black and it doesn’t even come up as a plot point. And read it to children.

Then take those books and pass them on.  Donate them to a library, donate them to a school, leave it on a park bench with a note that says “free.”

Even though minorities make up 37% of the U.S. population they are represented in children’s books at 10%.  So send an email and coffee money to a minority writer.  Write a poem from the perspective of a different race than your own.   Talk to your librarian about having a display with books that showcase diversity.

The front liners are on the news and in our feed and in our ears.  But you can be our second wave.  You can be the secret seed planters.  Even if you are not here to see the harvest, know that my son will be.

READ FOR EQUALITY

Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.

 

My City Follows Me Around

thumbnailYesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.

Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.

Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.

Writers Awake

Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.

 So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.

I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.

AND READ FOR EQUALITY

LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.